STORRS, Conn. — It was business as usual at Gampel Pavilion. Well, sort of. Before Connecticut’s home opener Friday, a banner was unveiled and a ring presented, but not for a national championship. Instead, both of those items were to honor former Huskies great Rebecca Lobo, who was inducted into the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame in September.
It was the first time since 2012 that no new championship banner was raised to the Gampel rafters to open the season.
The sting from the loss to Morgan William and Mississippi State in last season’s Final Four hung in the air. It wasn’t suffocating, and hardly noticeable in a 82-47 blowout of No. 20 Cal, but it was still present, if only among the tonal shift of how the team presented itself. In a marked difference from the rallying cry “Champions are made here” in the Huskies’ 2016-17 pregame video, “Here we come” is this season’s theme.
You know, just in case anyone thought UConn was going to sneak up on them.
It’s all part of the narrative that this team is hungry. The Huskies are back in the gym, working harder than ever. And they were out to make a statement in their first game at home.
Top-ranked UConn improved to 2-0 on the season and had no trouble with Cal, but the victory did not come without cost, potentially a steep one.
With 4 minutes, 2 seconds left in the second quarter, 6-foot-3 junior Katie Lou Samuelson jumped into the paint to retrieve a pass but came down on the foot of Cal forward Mikayla Cowling. Samuelson fell to the hardwood and immediately grabbed the lower part of her left leg. With help from her teammates, she tried to walk it off but soon waved to the bench for a sub. Samuelson, who had scored 12 points early on, hobbled to the locker room under her own power, but didn’t return to the game.
Coach Geno Auriemma later said that Samuelson had suffered a mid-foot sprain and that the extent of her injury would be determined in the coming days.
“We’re not as good of a team without Lou, no question about it,” he said. “But I think we responded pretty well.”
In the locker room at halftime, the Huskies were informed that Samuelson wouldn’t return. They knew more was going to be asked of each of them. Then, already ahead by 21, UConn went on a 22-3 run in the third quarter to extend the lead to 40. Napheesa Collier, Kia Nurse and Crystal Dangerfield led a balanced attack — six players scored in double figures — with 14 points each. The Huskies notched 20 assists on 30 field goals.
“One man down, next man up,” said Dangerfield, a sophomore guard. “That’s going to be our mentality because we don’t know what [Samuelson’s] status is for this upcoming week.”
Defense continues to be UConn’s core. The Huskies forced the Bears into 29 turnovers, converting those mistakes into 35 points on the other end. They got out on the run, showcasing their passing, including a couple of impressive bounce passes from senior Gabby Williams. She also scored 13 points.
“We want to establish that as our identity,” Auriemma said of his team’s defensive effort. “We create turnovers. We get out in transition. We’re hard to play against on the move. That’s who we are.”
That defense might be what holds UConn together down a tough stretch of the schedule, possibly without one of its best players for part or all of it. The Huskies take on No. 15 Maryland at home on Sunday before hitting the road to face No. 8 UCLA on Tuesday. Then they play Michigan State in Oregon and Nevada in Reno — near Williams’ hometown — before facing rival and sixth-ranked Notre Dame in Hartford on Dec. 3.
“And now, on top of that, we’ve got a kid who may or may not play — who we rely on heavily,” Auriemma said. “All of a sudden, this isn’t normal Connecticut going on the road, walk into an arena, blow somebody out and then go home. I’m anxious to see how we respond to that.”
Dangerfield wasn’t the only one to use the “next man up” mantra. The phrase was uttered multiple times in UConn’s postgame interviews, that the team leaders expect each of their teammates to step up in Samuelson’s prospective absence.
Last season, a potential injury to a member of the starting five had the potential to derail UConn’s season, since the Huskies routinely played only six, maybe seven players. At just two games into the season, UConn’s rotations aren’t clear yet, but transfer Azurá Stevens and freshman Megan Walker logged 17 and 20 minutes, respectively, while also accounting for all 15 UConn bench points on Friday.
“What we’re fortunate to have is that we’re not a one-person, two-person, three-person or four-person team,” Nurse said. “We find ways to get things done and we find ways to pick up where we need to. I have a feeling that some of our players that need to step up at this point will do it, because they’re ready for it.”